Climbing Big Daddy

“For real, this is like literally, actually the highest level on the stairmaster at the gym. But kind of worse.”

That was one of the most coherent things I overheard while climbing Big Daddy, a mountainous dune in the Sossusvlei area of Namibia’s Namib Desert.

What looks like little tiny people climbing a sand dune - tourists climb dune 45 near Sossusvlei (Photo: Nathan Brown)

What looks like little tiny people climbing a sand dune – tourists climb dune 45 near Sossusvlei (Photo: Nathan Brown)

An American woman made the comment as she slumped over about a third of the way up the sand mountain.

Most others just kind of grunted.

Big Daddy’s peak of about 325 metres towers over the surrounding red dunes at Sossusvlei.

Climbers who make it to the top look out at the slightly less imposing Big Mama dune and over Deadvlei – an eerie salt pan dotted with blackened skeletons of camel thorn trees.

With midday temperatures easily reaching 40 degrees in winter, people begin this expedition early.

The gates to Namib-Naukluft National Park open at sunrise, and eager climbers start arriving by the bus load then.

Vicinity to the park is key, and with my base at Kulala Desert Lodge just a 10-minute drive from the park’s entrance, I was looking up from the base of Big Daddy by 7.30am.

The beginning of the hike: Big Daddy

The beginning of the hike: Big Daddy is the highest dune in the Sossusvlei area; it is on average about 325 meters high (height may vary over time as it is made of sand). (Photo: Nathan Brown

A guide from the lodge gave me several pointers, the best of which was to step in other people’s footprints.

The already partially compressed sand meant I sunk less and cut my stairmaster level in half.

He told me to stop and look round once in a while, rather than simply power up without appreciating the view.

And he told me to listen to my heart.

Whoa. I thought the emotion meter had skyrocketed to a whole other 1980s-pop-ballad measure, until he clarified that he’d had an older male guest with cardiac issues give Big Daddy a go a few weeks earlier. That advice was quite literal.

The reward for climbing the 350m sand dune is seeing the amazing Deadvlei, a white clay pan located at the bottom of Big Daddy inside the Namib-Naukluft Park (Photo: Nathan Brown)

The reward for climbing the 325m sand dune is seeing the amazing Deadvlei, a white clay pan located at the bottom of Big Daddy inside the Namib-Naukluft Park (Photo: Nathan Brown)

While the dune is always an uphill battle, the gradient is not constant.

There are a few fairly flat stretches, which seem to be nature’s gift to help restore the flagging climber.

Then there are also steeper segments – nature’s way of flipping you the bird.

The guide said he’d seen people go up in 40 minutes, but most took about an hour and a half.

I was smack in the middle of those times, and proud of my performance.

This isn’t your Kilimanjaro or your Everest, but it’s a decent hike and, for me, the sense of satisfaction at the top matched the views.

But the real bees knees? The two-minute descent. A slip `n’ slide never felt so good.

The writer travelled with assistance from Wilderness Safaris and Adventure World.